Crazy Video

This is unbelievable. If you know who Dov Shurin, aka Ben Israel, is, then the concept of the video isn't at all shocking, though its execution may be. Enjoy!

Cool Link

Just found this site called ‘Charity Navigator’, which evaluates data, obtained from the IRS, on a large number of NPOs and charitable organizations. For example, here are YU, Gesher, and Gush. You can learn a lot about these organizations by looking at these links. By the way, ‘American Friends of Tzohar’ has nothing to do with my organization; we don’t yet have a U.S.-registered identity.


Israeli Schizophrenia

If you listen long enough to discussions about religious-secular relations in Israel (and I get plenty of that with Tzohar), a paradoxical picture will begin to emerge: On one hand, there’s a sense that there’s a real rift between the two populations, and that in many respects, that rift is growing or at least standing pat. Poltically, the religious are marginalized. Even those areas which are traditionally under religious provenance are being threatened, and the religious institutions are responding by becoming more entrenched and trying to expand their control in those realms.

At the same time, you hear of a ‘thirst’ for authentic Judaism from within the secular population. You hear statistics, for example, that in the army, Shas gets more votes than any other party. On my block, most families built Sukkot – mostly kosher but some not – as what’s probably the Israeli cultural equivalent of a Christmas tree. The overwhelming majority of Israeli couples, according to a recent survey, would opt for a traditional wedding even if civil or non-traditional alternatives existed! Fasting on Yom Kippur is still in the consensus, as is keeping certain basic elements of kashrut. Non-Orthodox schools with strong Jewish curricula – such as the Tali network – are very successful. The list continues.

I’ve chanced upon a distinction which seems to resonate with many people (religious and secular) that I mention it to. It probably will sound weird in English: Israelis are not interested in religion; they are interested in Judaism (in Hebrew – they’re not looking for dat, they’re looking for Yahadut). Anything which is legal, institutional, bureaucratic, etc. is almost automatically discounted from being meaningfully Jewish.

Obviously, reality is much more complicated than that, and I don’t pretend to really ‘get it’. But I’ve found the distinction useful.


Populist Gadlus

Gil reports the following from R' Ephraim Wachsman's speech at the Agudah Convention:
some Torah scholars become famous simply because the laypeople like what they have to say and aren't really Gedolim
R' Gil then speculates as to which populist pseudo-Gedolim R' Wachsman could possibly be referring to, discounting R' Y.D. Soloveitchik and R' Aharon Soloveichik as possibilities.

I think I've figured it
out, though. It must be the author of the following quote, which appeared in a New York Times interview in 1975 and was excerpted in an NYT obituary in 1986:
'You don't wake up in the morning and decide you're an expert on answers,'' he said. ''If people see that one answer is good and another answer is good, gradually you will be accepted.''
The author of this quote, of course, is R' Moshe Feinstein (I remember once hearing from R' Yosef Blau that many in the Yeshivish world were upset about this quote because it doesn't really express what gadlus is, much as REW contends. R' Blau felt that this quote hits the nail on the head regarding what gadlus is).
In fairness, REW might be saying that being p
opular isn't necessarily a rayusa, but it's not a ra'ayah to gadlus either. In any event, given Lakewood politics, by bet is that it was a veiled reference to the wildly popular Kashrut.org, run by the Rabbis Abadi, formerly of Lakewood. Not everything has to be directed against Modern Orthodoxy, y'know.


ADDeRabbi News and Comment

  • Charles Krauthammer has an excellent, in my opinion, op-ed in which he rakes Sacha Baron-Cohen over the coals for his Rolling Stone interview, especially where he talks about the importance of exposing indifference to anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred in the American heartland.

  • This is truly astounding. McDonald’s changed their label from gold-on-red to gold-on-blue so that people will not mistake unkosher branches for Kosher ones. The Tel Aviv Rabbinate (R’ Lau) approved this arrangement, but the Jerusalem Rabbinate is still debating it. I find it baffling. Why? Are they simply assuring a brand name? What it represents? I don’t know, but after recent events (the cancellation of the agunah conference for dubious reasons, recent statements from R’ Amar about amending the Law of Return to exclude converts), I have started to wonder what religion they represent.

  • Apparently I’m a month late in discovering that Paris Hilton has released a line of ‘Heiress’ perfume. I think she’d have much greater success marketing [I had something really funny to say here, but ADDeRebbetzin nixed my posting it on the blog. It’s really not so bad, but it presumes some basic knowledge of PH’s history. Whatever. Shalom Bayis. You can post your guesses in the comments.]

A Harsh Moral Lesson

The story of Yaakov taking the Brachot from Esav is one of the most dramatic in all of Chumash. There's so much going on - the whole complex of relationships between each of the four principals, the plot and its execution, and the subtexts and context.

One lesson that I think clearly emerges, which I recently saw that R' Samet also concludes from his essay on the Parsha (it's much better - and very different - in Hebrew) is that:
The proper moral decision is not always between good and evil; sometimes it
is between a greater and a lesser evil - but this does not exempt the one
who commits the lesser evil from his debt.

I'd tinker with the last line - it does not negate the right of the wronged party to collect his debt. I'd also formulate the lesson a bit differently differently: Sometimes, doing the right thing in a particular situation comes at a very, very steep price.


Arutz 7 Interview

I was interviewed by Yishai Fleischer of israelnationalradio.com at the OU conference. The interview begins about 24:40 of this audio show.


Never Mind about Chabad

Funny thing. I write a post about the violence at Ponevezh and Satmar, two of Lubavitch's antagonists, and its absence in Chabad itself. Two commenters alluded to violence that broke out at 770 that same day. Surprisingly, there's very little about it in the news, though Dovid gives some idea what happened.
UPDATE: Tzemach Atlas has more, and this comment thread on Vos Iz Neias has a bunch.

Anyhow, never mind about the Rebbe smiling from the grave.
Sad, though. I remember speaking with my colleague at UMD after he had attended the Kinus Ha-Shluchim in past years. It sounds like an incredible event for the shluchim and their families. Too bad this kind of thing has to happen. But as the old saying goes, when you play with fire, someone will get burned.

The First FFB

Last year, I wrote a post for Maven Yavin called 'The First FFB'. It's probably not my best post, but it's definitely one of my favorites. It speaks to my own situation and to the situation of my parents, especially my father, whose name is Yitzchak and whose Bar Mitzvah Parsha was Toldot. Growing up, I didn't have too many friends whose parents were both FFB (which was fairly atypical in Baltimore).

My father tells the story of a young couple's Kiddush Club from about 30+ years ago in B-more (no, Laz, you didn't invent it ;-). This group had a cholent on a blustery winter Shabbat morning. My father made a comment like, "Boy, there's nothing like a hot cholent on a cold Shabbos." Members of the group then proceeded to one-up him with foods - shrimp, cheeseburgers, bacon - that beat cholent hands down, even on the coldest of Shabbatot.

The humor of the story is in the encounter between the FFB experience - in which that cholent stands near the pinnacle of culinary delight (if it's REALLY cold) - and the BT experience, where this brown sludge is a far cry from the pleasures that the world enjoys and that the BT abandons.

I think about this stuff every year this time, for some reason. I reflect on the expectations that were placed upon me as a child and young adult, and the degree to which those expectations are the heritage from parents who somehow felt that they themselves didn't live up to every expectation.

And then I wonder just how many generations I'd have to go back in order to find the ancestor who filled his parents' every hope.

And then I wonder if I'll be able to keep myself from pouring all of that unresolved expectation into my own kids.

Austritt Today

German Orthodoxy in the mid-19th Century developed a doctrine called austritt to deal with the fact that the Jewish communities were being dominated by Reform. The doctrine essentially meant that the Orthodox community disenfranchised itself from the established community, and set up a separate communal structure. This was highly important where separation between church and state was incomplete, since having an independent community meant that the government recognized you as an independent religious community, not beholden in any way to the community from which you separated. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch is the most well-known proponent of this doctrine, which remains implicit in Chareidi politics until today, and continues to me debated in some form or another, as it was debated then (yes, there were German Orthodox Rabbis opposed to it).

Fast forward 150 years, and the same situation is reversed in Israel. There’s no separation between church and state. In order to obtain certain basic services (basically, getting married, buried, divorced, or converted, but it extends, in the case of Judasim, to kashrut and cases seen by the Rabbinical courts as well) one must belong to a recognized religion. If you don’t really belong to any, tough luck. Find one. The largest and most influential religion in Israel, obviously, is Judaism. Those ‘Jewish’ services are controlled by a relatively loose confederation of Rabbis under the umbrella of the Chief Rabbinate. This Rabbinate has historically ignored all non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, and has increasingly ignored even Orthodox expressions which are not beholden to a particular Chareidi power structure.

The Religious Zionist community continues to basically accept this state of affairs. There are still plenty of RZ Rabbis who hold Rabbanut-recognized positions (especially as Rabbis of small yishuvim, moshavim and kibbutzim, in which the election of a local Rabbi is least characterized by political horse-trading and most characterized by the needs and wants of the constituency), which means that there is essentially a Religious-Zionist sub-Rabbinate within the Chief Rabbinate, with its own hierarchy and power structure (though less rigid), which tries its best to serve the needs of its constituents and advance its halachic vision of the state.

It is getting increasingly harder to do that. Political horse-trading has reduced the office of Chief Rabbi to a joke; the influence of the Edah Charedis on the Rabbanut is known. For example, the Rabbanut recently changed the law to prevent weddings from being performed by anyone but the holder of a Rabbanut-recognized position. This severely limited the pool of Rabbanim who could do so, and was seen as a direct response to the fact that more and more people were turning to Tzohar and other ‘friendly’ Rabbanim who had semicha but were not necessarily recognized by the Rabbanut. At the same time, more and more Charedi Rabbanim are obtaining Rabbanut recognition, through the Edah Charedit, to perform weddings. Despite all of the nice-making between the Rabbanut and the RCA over the summer, there are still senior members of the Rabbanut court system who will not recognize the conversions of American batei din even if the Rabbanut grants official recognition.

The question is, at what point does this become intolerable? At what point does the Religious Zionist community declare austritt, unbeholden to the dictates of an official government-sponsored Judaism that takes their money and doesn’t answer their religious needs. I suspect (well, more like I know) that the Reform and Conservative communities in Israel are itching for the opportunity to declare themselves free of official Orthodox hegemony in Israel. Historically, Modern Orthodoxy/ Religious Zionism has always seen itself as part of an ‘Orthodoxy’ which includes itself and Charedi elements. Given current trends in Israel specifically, will that trend continue? Or will there be a ‘reverse Austritt’, with other branches of Judaism declaring their official, political dissociation from Chareidi hegemony?

UPDATE: Just saw this. Fuel to the fire.



Mi-Bnei Banav Shel Haman Limdu Torah Be-Bnei Brak (Sanhedrin 104b)

This is simply outrageous.
I can't help but think of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose main antagonists included Satmar and Ponevezh, laughing in his grave as those two movements are fighting was of succession (literally) while his, despite much internal tension, remains stronger than ever.

It provides a different spin on the Chabad melody after which this post is named. The translation of its words are as follows:

"The grandchildren of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak. We are victorious."



There’s an interesting Midrash at the beginning of the Parsha (it also turns up in Esther Rabbah): R’ Akiva was sitting and lecturing, and the people were falling asleep. He said to them, “What did Esther see that enabled her to rule over 127 provinces? Let the granddaughter of Sarah who lived 127 years come and rule over 127 provinces.

I find this Midrash to be extremely fertile for contemplating the situation of galut. The generation of Rabbi Akiva and the generation of Esther have that in common – they are situated at the beginning of exiles. In R’ Akiva’s generation, the people ‘fell asleep’ –they became afflicted by spiritual depression and ennui. It was a generation that had lost the Temple and become subject to Roman domination. In this setting, R’ Akiva turns to Esther (whose very identity, in the Rabbinic mind, is rooted in the state of Hester Panim – the hiding of God’s Face) as a role model for someone who can inspire a generation that had fallen asleep.

R’ Akiva, in this Midrash, emphasizes Esther’s ability to ‘rule’ over 127 provinces. Despite the lack of God’s palpable presence, Esther doesn’t let the situation control her, doesn’t allow herself to be a victim of circumstance, and doesn’t lapse into the apathetic default state of galut. Rather, she determines her own destiny.

R’ Akiva and Esther both lived in generations of breakdown. By what right does one try to pick up the pieces and forge a new whole from them? By what right can the Torah be made to strike roots in a new environment?

If Avraham represents a universal moral intuition, the Sarah represents a particular Jewish morality. It is she who insists, to Avraham’s dismay, on the purity of the environment in which Yitzchak is raised. She is the one who insists that we remain distinctively ‘Jewish’. The Patriarchs in general operate according to a ‘pre-Torah’, acting out the values which later would be enshrined in the laws of the Torah, but still in their unarticulated form. When new situations arise, it becomes mandatory to fall back upon that intuition, the heritage of the Partiarchs and Matriarchs, to reconstitute how one is to live as a Jew in this new reality. It is this intuition, embodied by the lives of the Avot, which enables Esther, and later R’ Akiva, to thrive in galut (based loosely on the Chiddushei Ha-Ri”m).

Ger Ve-Toshav Anochi

At the beginning of the Parsha (Chayei Sarah), Avraham introduces himself to the Bnei Cheit as a ‘Ger Ve-Toshav’ – an alien and a resident. There has been much written about the oxymoronic nature of Avraham’s statement, and someone even alluded to it in a comment on a recent post of mine about the struggles of acculturating in Israel. The Rav self-described himself with this phrase, and it became the title of an article in this book describing his relationship with the modern world.

Nevertheless, the question remains: what’s p’shat in this phrase?

One of the major themes of Bereishit (there are 4 or 5, and a thorough study of them all would probably be book-length) is that of migration. Careful attention to the Torah’s usage of the roots gur, shev, chai, and shochen yields a framework for the entire narrative. Ve-acamo”l. Here, two are merged – ger and toshav, normally denoting two different things, are conflated. Why?

At the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim, Avraham was promised that his seed would be ‘ger’ for 400 years. Ramban points out that since the 400 years begins with the birth of Yitzchak, from the time of his birth, Avraham and his descendants are no longer ‘toshavim’ in the land of Canaan, but are gerim. This status of ger only applies to whomever is currently the bearer of Avraham’s brit. Avraham and Yitzchak, at the end of their lives, once they have already designated successors and ‘passed the torch’, are no longer subject to the travails common to the Chosen Family. Yaakov also wishes to enter into that state of ‘retirement’ from being covenant-bearer (see the first verse of Va-yeshev and Rashi there. Note also the interplay between these two roots, shav and ger, in that verse), but that plan backfires, ve-acamo”l. The end of their lives are recorded in ‘fast forward’ mode, similar to Terach’s, their deaths even recorded prematurely. Once they have passed the torch, they are no longer essential to the story.

By the end of the Akeidah, it is certain who will be the heir of Avraham’s Covenant (until that moment, when Yitzchak’s death was expected, there was still some doubt). Avraham has passed the torch. He is ready to ‘retire’ (this theme actually comes up in several places in the Parsha – where Avraham’s ‘old-age’ is mentioned), but he can’t because Yitzchak is not ready to assume that mantle, specifically because he is unmarried (and it seems that the covenant includes Partiarch-and-wife, especially since the bracha of ‘pru u-revu’ is part of the Covenant. Only when Yitzchak gets married, and Rivka replaces Sarah, can Avraham fully ‘retire’ (note also that the eved Avraham consistently refers to Yitzcahk as ‘ben adoni’ until he introduces Rivka to him, when he calls him ‘adoni’ – reinforcing Yitzchak’s replacement of Avraham at that moment).

Between the Akeida and Yitzchak’s marriage, Avraham is in limbo – ready to retire, but unable to do so. This ‘limbo’ is reflected in his self-description as a ‘ger ve-toshav’.


Tzohar in the News

Rabbis see rise in questions from secular Israelis - Haaretz - Israel News


Bye-Bye Labelr (for now)

For the past day or two, it has been nearly impossible to access this blog because it imports data from a site called labelr, which was helping me to archive my blog topically. When their site went down, mine couldn't load.
Well, it's been removed, which should make things much better.

Also, the posting pace will probably slow considerably because I'm working 1 1/3 jobs. The only time I have to sit and think (and blog) is on the bus. I also use that time to prepare classes and get other work done. Unfortunately, blogging has become somewhat burdensome.

The other reason to stop blogging is because I used to be much more confident that I have a clue what I'm talking about. I'm really just not so sure anymore. It's kinda like this - I'm living in a different culture. In my 'home' culture, I was on much more solid footing. Here, I see things that would be offensive or just not done in the home culture, and I think it's wrong, but really it's just part of the new culture (and I'm not talking about substantive things like morals and ethics). In the new culture, I'm an outsider, but don't really want to become an insider because, like I said, I'm not too crazy about it. I'll never really 'make it' in this country as an outsider (and by 'make it', I mean achieve even the degree of professional success that I acheived at UMD), but I don't really want to join the ranks of the other outsiders in the American Yeshivot and Seminaries, basically dealing with imports from the home culture because it's too hard to break in to the new culture. And there's also the matter that average Israeli Rabbanim, by and large, can absolutely learn average American Rabbanim under the table. Granted, that's not all that goes into being a Rabbi, but at the end of the day, American Rabbanim, on average, just haven't spent nearly as much time in the Beit Midrash.

Thus, my confidence is somewhat shot as nothing seems stable anymore. I'm trying to adjust to spending most of my day behind a desk. Trying to find some time to learn, daven, and play ball beyond work and family. Blogging? I don't really have time to think original thoughts, let alone record them. And even if I did, as I mentioned, my confidence in both their originality and their accuracy is shaken. More on that at a different time.

So we'll see how things go. I've got some ideas for making this all more palatable; we'll see how it goes.


High School Students and Online Forums

What would you tell this guy? I’m more interested in the perspectives of the students themselves; what is acceptable behavior for mechanchim vis-à-vis student journals, blogs, and facebooks pages, and what oversteps the boundaries into ‘stalkerish’ behavior?

To: lookjed@mail.biu.ac.il
Sent: Tuesday, November 07, 2006 5:58 PM
Subject: "My Space" and "Face Book"

Although I hope, that as mechanchim, most LOOKJED readers are familiarwith My Space and Face Book, for those who are not, I will give a briefdescription.
At each of these sites, teenagers (as well as adults) cancreate their own page with pictures, graphics, text and more. It is achance to put forward the image that you would like others to have of you.Posters (and on My Space anyone) can see the pages of other posters andrequest to be their "friend", creating a virtual link, or more, betweenthem.Many our students - and this is true in virtually all types of schools -are making use of these sites. It goes without saying that the "friends"they are making are often not of the kind we would wish them to have.(That is to say nothing of the reports of stalkers making use of thesesites). Additionally, the language and images used on some of ourstudents' pages would make a sailor blush. Additionally, students can makeclaims about their teachers and schools that are now put out there asfacts for anyone to see.If you are naive enough to think that this is not an issue in your school,sign up at Face Book and do a classmate search using your school name. Youwill not be able to see your student's page, but you can see the name,pictures and schools of their "friends". Alternatively do a search on MySpace using your community name and see what you find. On My Space, beaware however that you might see things that are problematic, to say theleast.

What should our response be as educators? Perhaps we should have educationnights for parents, who I suspect are all too oblivious to what theirchildren are doing on the computer at night. This might be an opportunityfor parents to have important discussions with their children. Shouldadministrators try to discover who has these pages and deal with those whohave pages that are antithetical to their school community? To be sure,our students will feel that this is their private life outside of schooland that we have no right to pry, but I feel comfortable saying that wemust not remain ignorant or on the sidelines. To do so would no differentthen ignoring a party out of school where illegal substances were used.I would very much like to hear what others are doing about this challengingissue, or at the least, what they think should be done.


Tzohar's Statement on the Pride March

The following statement was released by Tzohar:


The Tzohar Rabbinic Organization strongly opposes the occurrence of the “Pride March” in Jerusalem

According to Jewish tradition, there are 10 levels of sanctity, and the sanctity of Jerusalem is greater than the sanctity of other places. Arranging this protest in Jerusalem specifically seriously wounds the identity of this holy city, as for many Jews in Israel and around the world.

Even within the general framework of democracy, there is profound meaning for the public identity of the State, and it is therefore the state’s responsibility and the public’s right to establish boundaries for the protest.

We believe that this sensitive topic calls for dialogue and clarification, but not in the form of high-profile marches.

We strongly and unambiguously oppose any outburst of violence in this context. The sanctity of Jerusalem is also injured when, God forbid, blood is spilt upon her.

The sanctity of Jerusalem obligates all who value it to legally express their protest of this desecration of the holy. We wish to remind Rabbis, teachers, and parents that they must take responsibility for the behavior of our children and students, and to observe the guidelines of tzni’ut and halakha between man and God and between man and man.


In God’s Country

Last night, I drove past Tzomet Shilat and saw a huge number of police vehicles. They were there to monitoring an anti-pride-march protest that was taking place there. Apparently, such protests were taking place around the country. I have relatives from Jerusalem staying with me for Shabbat. They don’t want to be home on Friday. Understandably.

I think it’s an amazing coincidence that this is happening around the same time as elections in the US. The issue of ‘family values’, and how the Republicans have them, and the Dems don’t, is a major GOP campaign plank. Thus, similar conversations are taking place on both sides of the Atlantic.

I’ve seen a few personal accounts marshaled in support of gay rights. This open letter to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Martin O’Malley, is genuine and heartfelt. I can’t agree, but I can appreciate the human dimension of the story. There’s a side open to dialogue there, and his religious strivings may remain informed by the Torah, even if there are elements, as there clearly are, that he will never accept.

On the other hand, there are pieces like this, in which whatever sympathy we may have had for an individual’s plight are completely overwhelmed by the conclusions that the author drew from his experience and wishes so impose on us and on the Torah. With Rabbis like this as their ally, the Jewish gay community needs no enemies (though they’re still a-plenty).

Others just don’t get the point. They cite Supreme Court decisions granted homosexual partners spousal rights, etc., and point out that these decisions never were protested. Well, duh. It’s Jerusalem, stupid. It’s about the character of the city – is it, as it always was, a religious center, or is it the capital of a Western Democracy. If it were in Tel Aviv, things would be very quiet. Moving the march out of the center of the city is a good start.

One unrelated crack that I can’t resist: now we know why Israeli busses are called ‘Egged’.

In the name of calm and peace, can all sides agree to the following? It’s not asking much:

The gay community must accept that:

1) The Bible and Koran, revered by billions as the word of God, explicitly and irrevocably forbid homosexual intercourse between men.

2) As long as the majority of this planet adheres to the major religions, they will not change people’s minds about homosexuality.

3) Flaunting homosexuality is insulting to adherents of these religions.

Religious communities must accept that:

1) Some people really ARE homosexual, and will not be changed

2) Making demeaning jokes about homosexuals or treating them as less than humans is bad

Is that possible?

Pride and Prejudice

As much as I dread it, we may look back on the events of this coming weekend as the beginning of the all-out war between religion and state in Israel. The clash is not inevitable by any stretch of the imagination, but the clash is real, and it’s predicated on a real clash of civilizations [We may start to see the name Huntington in the pages of the Yated as often as it’s heard on Al-Jazeera]. These rifts run very. Very deep.

That’s part of the reason that I think this pride march was such a stupid idea. Readers of this blog know that I am very concerned about the plight of homosexuals in the Jewish and Orthodox community. I’ve written a lot about it (including a d’var Torah on this week’s Parsha). But this march is something completely different. It’s antagonistic. It’s designed to make people’s stomach’s churn. Even if it was a ‘celebration’ of heterosexuality – like Carnival or Mardi Gras – it would be grossly out of place in Jerusalem. It’s one thing to advocate for a cause. Ramming it down people’s throats (no pun intended) is quite a different matter. It will not earn you any sympathy.

Similarly, protesting violently will not earn any sympathy. Peaceful protests, in those numbers, will be tough to control. I heard a great idea what to do – organize Chareidi rallies in secular neighborhoods. March down main street Savyon screaming ‘ve-haya machanecha kadosh’ and see how them like it. That would be fighting in kind. As it stands, everyone’s preparing for battle.

I have a slim volume entitled "The Oppression of the Jewish Religion in the 'Jewish' State of Israel". It's a documentary, published by 'Mechon Hayahadus Hacharedis' to chronicle the 'Shabbas' demonstrations (I believe it was from the early 80s. The volume was published in the late 80s.) I believe that was the last time that there was a series of mass demonstrations by the Chareidi public on this scale (perhaps the protests against the Barak court in the late 90s were, but I don't recall them being as constant as this). It's an unbelievable bit of propaganda, complete with captions like "An Israeli police gleefully pulling a Jewish beard", "The pogrom at its peak", "Where is this??? Nazi Germany?", and "The legions of Amalek's police force in the Holy Land". It's unreal. I wonder what the sequel will look like.

Protesting and Rosh Hashana 19a

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף יט עמוד א

בעשרים ותמניא ביה אתת בשורתא טבתא ליהודאי דלא יעידון מאורייתא. שגזרה מלכות הרשעה שמד על ישראל שלא יעסקו בתורה, ושלא ימולו את בניהם, ושיחללו שבתות. מה עשה יהודה בן שמוע וחביריו? הלכו ונטלו עצה ממטרוניתא אחת שכל גדולי רומי מצויין אצלה. אמרה להם: בואו והפגינו בלילה. הלכו והפגינו בלילה, אמרו: אי שמים! לא אחיכם אנחנו, ולא בני אב אחד אנחנו, ולא בני אם אחת אנחנו? מה נשתנינו מכל אומה ולשון שאתם גוזרין עלינו גזירות קשות! וביטלום. ואותו היום עשאוהו יום טוב.

On the twenty ninth day of it [Adar – Rashi, based on Megillat Taanit], good news came to the Jews, that they wouldn’t be disconnected from the Torah. The evil empire (Rome, not the Yankees - AR) decreed apostasy on Israel: that they may not engage in Torah, that they may not circumcise their sons, and that they violate the Sabbath. What did Yehuda b. Shamu’a and his friends do? They consulted with a matroness who was frequented by all of the Roman nobles. She said to them, “Go protest (hafginu) at night.” The went and protested at night, saying “For God’s Sake! Aren’t we brothers, sons of one father, and sons of one mother?” And they were rescinded. And that day was made into a holiday.
A few points are in order:

First, note what the protests are about in the Gemara and today. Shabbat. Bris. Torah. Not the right of some group to march. Not mixed seating in public transportation.

Second, notice the method of protest. Build bridges with someone from the other side. Appeal to common ground. No violence. No name-calling. No rock-throwing.

Of course, the Romans were different. Had the Yidden tried anything too funny, heads would have rolled. For 2000 years in Galus, we took the non-violent approach (except on Purim, a la Elliot Horowitz) because it was most tactical. But in Israel, where everyone is INDEED the son of the same parents, where we know that the blood will not flow between brothers, the situation is exploited to gain concessions that the Galus-Yid would never dream about. It’s ironic considering that it’s generally NOT the Chareidi viewpoint that we’ve left the Galus; that you’ll find in National Religious circles. So why the agitation? Is it simply because here they can get away with it?

A few years ago, my very pregnant, chareidi sister got on a separate-seating bus in Kiryat Sefer (yeah, RBS is behind the times; KS is the cutting edge). There were no seats left on the women’s side. So she sat in an empty row on the men’s side. As the men’s side filled up, some yutz tried to kick my sister out of her seat, so there would be more room on the men’s side. She refused, and he backed off. My sister, the chareidi Rosa Parks.


Matisyahu- Jerusalem

Matisyahu - Jerusalem

This is like nothing I've ever seen. It's somehow very inspiring.

Hat Tip: Dovid

Letter Concerning the Jerusalem Pride March

The following is my translation of a letter that is being circulated in Jerusalem concerning events set to take place next weekend. While I don't get many of the allusions in the letter, and I don't think it will deter those who are determined to act violently, it is very important that there be a strong religious voice against violence this weekend. I suspect most Jerusalemites would rather that both the marchers and the protesters would just go away. Perhaps I'll post more on this issue at a different time:

“And they responded and said, ‘our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see” (Devarim 21:7)

We, members of Jerusalem’s Orthodox communities, express our absolute renunciation of the words that have been heard over the past few days, with regard to the ‘Pride March’ that is set to take place in Jerusalem this Friday (November 10). These words include incitement, violent intent, an attempt to silence voices, and degradation of fellow human beings.

As residents of Jerusalem, and as those who see themselves as an integral part of Jerusalem’s Orthodox community, we are unable to remain silent when threats of harsh violence are being heard, especially in light of the fact that these threats were realized last year. We are aware that the systematic provocation against the march is portrayed enjoying the participation of all parts of the city’s Orthodox communities, and it is important that it be clear that a large part of this community is revolted by it. In particular, we oppose some of the representation of the city’s religious school system, in which our children are educated, in their incitement.

This statement does not support the march itself, or take a position on its integrity or justness. Amongst us, there are different positions on this topic and we respect the rights of all sides to express them. However, the seriousness of the words spoken these past few days obligates all community leaders to distance themselves from any hint of agreement with incitement or violent intent. This issue demonstrates how narrow is the gap between silencing voices, even of opposing religious viewpoints, and harsh violence. The coalition of extreme elements and lawbreakers, along with honorable leaders whose behavior, during normal times, is quite acceptable to us, obligates us to open their eyes and cause their reversion to acting like noble-minded Jerusalemites. Lip-service will not suffice to prevent violence. If threats become realized, even the more tolerant members of our society will not be able to wash his hands in innocence.

Here’s hoping that we can all accept Shabbat with clear mind and conscience.


Why God Chose Abraham

As mentioned previously, various Midrashim and commentators attempt to fill in the details of Abram’s life before he receives God’s message. I would like to focus on one particular theme that has been variously interpreted. I refer, of course, to the furnace story. I would like to compare the way that this story is addressed in Bereishit Rabbah, Rashi, Ramban, and Rambam. The difference between their treatments is astounding and highly instructive as to how each perceived Abraham’s greatness and contribution. The common theme is the 'smashing of the idols', literally or figuratively. Before moving further, I'll point out one definition:

i·con·o·clast (ī-kŏn'ə-klăst')

  1. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.
  2. One who destroys sacred religious images.

[French iconoclaste, from Medieval Greek eikonoklastēs, smasher of religious images : eikono-, icono- + Greek -klastēs, breaker (from Greek klān, klas-, to break).]

I. Midrash Rabbah: Abraham the Skeptic

The image of Abraham smashing the idols, in the Midrash *(Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, is not an act of zeal or rage. Abraham talks to people, questions them, challenges their assumptions. We shatters the idols in order to better challenge people’s assumptions. Throughout the Midrash, we never see Abram arguing for God, only against paganism. And he doesn’t really argue per se. He questions. He drives people crazy with his incessant, mocking questions. Ultimately, he is sentenced to die in the fire that he ‘doesn’t believe in’. Until that point in the midrash, and even beyond, there is NO MENTION of his belief in God. It’s not that the midrash holds that he didn’t know God or about God beforehand, but it seemingly was not part of his educational repertoire.

Many have noted the similarities between the midrashic story of Abraham and the story of Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, who were miraculously saved from death by fire after refusing to worship a foreign god. However, there’s another well-known story that parallels this midrash even more closely – the story of Socrates. Those who know the story will immediately notice the similar contours – the sentencing of a troublemaker, an iconoclast, who questions the very foundations of the power structure and is therefore perceived as a threat to the stability of the society. The difference is in the outcome of the story; Socrates was not miraculously saved from the hemlock.

II. Rashi: Abraham the Zealot

Rashi (11:28) makes very short shrift of the midrashic narrative. Gone are the pedagogic elements. In the Midrash, Abram destroys all of the idols but one, in order to present people with the absurd scenario that it destroyed all of its peers. It is to show people the inconsistency of their faith. Rashi skips those elements, and doesn’t even leave the one idol standing. The verb he uses to describe Abram’s vandalism is she-katat. The verb root ‘ktt’ is generally reserved by Chaza”l to describe what happens to pagan paraphernalia that we are commanded to annihilate, or for all movable property belonging to a ‘ir ha-nidachat’. It connotes an act of destruction for the sake of getting rid of something undesirable (as in ‘and they will beat – ve-kitetu - their swords into plowshares’). Rashi seems to be indicating that Abraham was acting out of a motivation to destroy icons for its own sake, at least the ones in his own home, motivated by a Godly zeal to root out evil.

This contrasts mightily with the tone of the Midrash as it appears in Bereishit Rabbah. Bet we’re not done yet.

III. Ramban: Abraham the Man of Faith

For Ramban (11:28 and 12:8), all Abraham wanted to do was have the freedom to worship as he pleased and to express what he really believed. Canaan became, for him, the ‘land of the free’, where he could finally speak publicly about his faith. Back in Ur, he was persecuted for his faith, to the point that he needed a miraculous salvation, either overtly or covertly. The king feared that Abraham would weaken the faith of his countrymen, and therefore resolved to rid himself of Abraham after confiscating his property. One can’t help but notice the similarities between Abraham and the Ramban himself. Working with the same material, Ramban articulates yet another vision of what Abraham was like in his early years.

IV: Rambam: Abraham the Philosopher

If Bereishit Rabbah has Abraham as Socrates, then Rambam (Hil. Avodah Zarah 1:3) presents him as Socrates combines Aristotle. An intellectual giant (amongst pagan imbeciles), constantly contemplating the cosmos from a very young age, and a complete autodidact, he reaches philosophical conclusions about the universe and its causes. He sees the physical forms attributed to the gods as the greatest obstacle to faith in the One True God, Creator, Prime Cause, and therefore advocates for the destruction of those forms. This gets him in trouble, etc. etc. Abraham’s goal is to announce the truth that will set people’s minds free. He doesn’t have questions, like BR’s Abraham; he’s got answers.

The truly amazing thing about this is the degree to which we all tend to see in our heroes the values that we ourselves admire. The Torah itself doesn’t tell us why Abram was chosen. As we rush in to fill in the details, the story is inevitably colored by our own experience and our own milieu. In that way, Abraham remains a hero to all. It doesn’t stop here, either. I’m particularly drawn to R’ Tzadok’s view of Abraham as having discovered God within himself (based on the midrash that Abraham’s two kidneys became Rabbis and would teach him Torah) and developed his own intuitions to accord with that internal Godliness. Today, we hear much talk of Avraham as a ‘Ba’al Teshuvah’. The point is, we can all find a hero in Abraham, even though we might think differently about what was so heroic. Perhaps that’s why the Torah left Abraham’s early years out – so that anyone on the lonely path toward God can find companionship in our sacred narratives.



At some point over the weekend, this blog will record its 100,000th hit, according to sitemeter (currently at 99,779). My Bravenet counter is at 85,610, and I have no idea what accounts for the discrepancy. Here are some other stats (some might be slightly off) on this blog:
  • 50,140 unique visitors

  • 420 posts (this is #421) in 22 months (average of 4.4 posts per week)


  • 230 incoming links from 65 blogs, according to Technorati

And on we go…

Shut Ha-ADDeRabbi, Part II

I just got the following question from the same guy as I got this one:

Rabbi F.,

I was wondering if you'd be able to answer a question for me. My fiancee and I are recently engaged and are starting to plan our wedding for next year. One detail that we are attempting to work out is the fact that I am Jewish and she is Catholic. We would like to encorporate (sic) traditions from both relgions (sic) into our wedding ceremony and I was wondering if you have any advice on how this is done. To make things even more difficult, the wedding is in ******, a community I am not really familiar with.

Ideally we'd love to have a priest and a rabbi there, but we don't know what the logistics on something like this are. Can you fill me in on any advice you may have on this subject?

Thanks very much.

So, like, what are my options? Ignore him? That would kill one of probably a very limited number of relationships with anyone connected to Torah. On the other hand, there’s obviously not much help I can offer him. Do I give him a few ‘customs’ like having the bride walk around seven times (or even let them walk around each other 7 times; nisht geferlach at this point. Maybe he’d break a glass? That might be appropriate. Ash on the forehead? Also might be appropriate, and the in-laws can even relate J. Empty pockets to recall the day of death? Having a ‘shomer’? Fasting? Doing a Vidui right before? Using the opportunity to pray for sick individuals? These are all things that are positive in any context, so if it adds some Jewishness to his life, mah tov. Maybe they’ll eventually get hooked up with EJF.

Alternatively, I can give him the straight dope. If he is lost to Judaism forever, no big deal, right? It ends with him anyway. Tell him that anything ‘Jewish’ about the wedding is a farce, and that Judaism doesn’t recognize intermarriages. Let him experience a bit of rage, or guilt, or both.

In any event, here’s how I responded. Comments welcome, since I'm very uneasy about this whole situation:

Hi A.,

First of all, congratulations on your engagement. I hope that the two of you find much happiness. I'm glad to see that you were able to successfully heal your relationship and move forward.

I have never officiated at a multidenominational ceremony, and don't really have an idea of what one would look like. It probably depends a lot on the two of you - how you would like your wedding to look. I would meet with you to discuss it, but, if you didn't already know, my wife and I moved to Israel over the summer. I'd suggest reading up on Jewish wedding customs on-line, and seeing what resonates with you. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me.

Regarding a Rabbi to officiate, I have some contacts in the @@@@@@ Rabbinate. You would be looking for a Rabbi who affiliates with the Reform movement, who would officiate at a wedding between a non-coreligionist couple. I will make the initial contact and then put you in touch.

Take care,



Never Again (and Other Ramdom Musings from Today)

I teach a class at a seminary two afternoons a week. After my class, there’s a class offered on the Sho’ah. Today, at the end of class, one of the women asked her peers, “Do we have Holocaust today?”

It’s always interesting to meet new and exciting people when they leave comments on your blog. Today, it was this guy. Don’t click the link if you’re sensitive to nivul peh and extreme irreverence. Otherwise, it’s a trip.

Since I’ve been listening to U2 lately, I’ve noticed that I identify with some of their songs in a very basic way. Indeed, they are an Irish group who lament the situation in their homeland, are looking for some kind of spirituality, but are clearly disgusted by the religious pretense for war. Will Israel produce a U2?

The ‘Secular Morality’ Dilemma

The debate about the necessity of God to any lasting moral system has been raging for a while (150 years? 200 years?). Someone, somewhere will quote the Malbim next week (20:11). I wanted to add a ‘mareh makom’ and advance a particular line of reasoning that I haven’t seen yet (though I really like this paragraph from mv”r RAL). The mareh makom is an article by R’ Yitzy Blau on the topic (link). If you’ve never read anything by R’ Yitzy, you’re missing out. He’s among the ranks of the undiscovered (or underdiscovered) residents of Alon Shvut who are contributing some of the most exciting and creative Torah literature on Earth.

I would like to advance a God-based argument for secular morality (it’s not a contradiction; keep reading). I definitely thought of it while reading that article by R’ Yitzy, but I can’t remember if he advances it explicitly, and I’m too lazy to reread it right now. Here goes.

Given: God is good.
Given: God is autonomous.
Thus: God is good not because he is ‘commanded’ to be good, but because of some other motivation.

Given: Man is enjoined to ‘walk after God’ in a moral and ethical sense – just as he is called ‘compassionate’, so, too, you must be compassionate.
Thus: If one were to truly be Godlike, then just as God acts with compassion autonomously, so, too, we should act with compassion autonomously

However: True, it may be desirable to autonomously act in a moral way, but how is it possible to know what’s moral without knowing God?
Answer: Given: Man was created in the image of God. There is something Godly in the very essence of humanity. Developing one’s humanity (or humaneness) and developing one’s Godliness can be one and the same. Becoming Godly is a process that it very different than belief or adherence to religion or even belief in God. One may remain unaware of the source of his/her motivation to be moral/Godly, and yet continue to move in that direction.

Nevertheless, there is a danger that without a heteronymous system, those attributes that make one Godly can become misguided. Compassion can be misplaced. The system (religion, halakha) is designed to insure that development takes place in the proper direction – not to instruct us to be moral, but to instruct us how to be moral.
(if you’re following, this also is a way out of Euthyphro’s dilemma).

Terach, Haran, and Lot: A Tradition of Mediocrity

In addition to meeting Abram in the end of Noach and in Lech Lecha, we meet a number of his relatives, even those who remain peripheral to the Patriarchal narrative. From there, we can actually get a picture, if not from the text itself, then from Chazal, of the type of family that Abraham had.

First off, it’s clear that the Terahide (I just made that word up, didn’t I?) family was not just any other family. In addition to Abraham, it produced all four (definitely three, probably four) Matriarchs, each from a different part of the family. Furthermore, the Torah introduces Abraham’s story as Terach’s story, and even uses terminology that is generally reserved for those who are central figures – ‘eileh toldot Terach’(11:27). This is a language used by the Torah when it wants to focus the story on an individual and his progeny. Not many characters in Bereishit get the ‘toldot’ treatment – not even Abraham! But Terach does. This all would seem to indicate that Abraham and all the Matriarchs came from something.

Terach emigrates from Ur Kasdim with his entire family, and intends to go to Canaan (11:31), but doesn’t quite make it. He makes it as far as Charan and settles there (i.e., his intent is to remain there; had his intent been to leave eventually, the Torah would have used the verb ‘la-gur’. These terms are extremely specific in the context of Patriarchal migrations). Why is it important that he intended to reach Canaan? Was it known that there’s something different about Canaan? Was there, as Ramban suggests, greater religious freedom there (Gee. Religious freedom in Israel, but not Iraq or Syria. Some things never change)? Was Canaan, as certain Midrashim express, a more conducive environment to spiritual matters, to prophecy, or to prayer (esp. for rain)? Perhaps there was something about the land which attracted Terach; nevertheless, he did not follow through with his aspirations to reach them. Additionally, the Midrash gives us a picture of a man who knows that idolatry is false, but continues the façade in order to make a living. The prosperity of Charan (see 12:5), or the need to ‘earn a living’, kept Terach from realizing any longing he may have had for a more Godly life (though, according to Rashi, he repented at the end of his life, again indicating that there was something there to begin with).

Terach had a ‘middle’ son, Haran. The Torah tells us very little about him, other than that he had a son Lot (and according to the mainstream of Jewish interpretation, 2 daughters, Milkah and Yiskah/Sarai), and that he died prematurely. His daughters each went in the direction of one of his brothers – Sarai with Abram, and Milkah with Nachor. The Midrash fills in the details of Haran’s death: in an ordeal between Abram and Nimrod, Haran waited to see who would win before choosing an allegiance. He was not averse to commitment to God, but he first had to know that there was something in it for him. He was not willing to die for an ideal (though he DID), even if it’s true. Like his father, the Midrash portrays Haran as someone whose concern with prosperity trumps whatever spiritual yearnings he might have.

Next, we come to Haran’s ‘middle’ son, Lot. Once again, we find a similar profile. Lot is clearly something more than his neighbors (though he picked a bad neighborhood), he acts kindly, he invokes God. Yet, he was unable to keep up with Abram. Again, the Midrash (cited by Rashi) explains their ‘break-up’ to a dilemma where prosperity confronts ethical behavior, in this case using owned lands as pasture. For Lot, prosperity remained primary; not so for Abraham. In general, the overwhelming impression of Lot that we get from chaza”l is of somebody who sincerely wants to do the right thing, but can’t seem to rid himself of other desires enough to lead the truly spiritual life.

Finally, we come to Lot’s progeny, Ammon and Moav. They, too, are somewhere in between. They are ethnically related to Israel, and from the books of Ezra and Ruth, we clearly see cultural cross-fertilization taking place (often t1 the chagrin of the prophets). They are a henotheistic tribe – remaining in the no-man’s-land between paganism and ethical monotheism (perhaps we can describe all three characters as ‘anethical monotheists’ – not ‘unethical’ because for them God has no bearing on ethics whatsoever). For a Moabite, Israel is semi-permeable; some (women) can enter, but others can’t. In an interesting Midrash on Sefer Shmuel, the King of Moab is willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of prosperity, but not for an ideal! He has taken his cue from Haran, not Abraham.